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The Night of the Wolf
Tigers of the Sea
Swords of the Northern Sea
The Temple of Abomination

Living about 125 years after Bran Mak Morn and Cormac of Connaught, we find Cormac Mac Art and Wulfhere the Skull-splitter. Despite the inordinate amount of pastiches that Cormac's saga has spawned, this really is a very minor series.

There are two extant complete stories, of only medium length, "The Night Of The Wolf" and "Swords Of The Northern Sea"; one lengthy fragment that has some promise to it, "Tigers Of The Sea"; and, a fragment and outline that show that, as with the saga of Agnes de la Fere, Howard was seeking to convert an adventure series to a fantasy series in hopes of marketing it. This last item is, of course, "The Temple Of Abomination".

As far as I can tell, the accompanying map is what northwestern Europe looked like during the time of Cormac and Wulfhere. According to Howard, the stories take place after Alaric and his Goths (Visigoths) sacked Rome; well, that was in 410 A.D. (according to my historical atlas), but the eastern one-third of the lands pictured had been conquered by Attila the Hun, and were part of his empire by 450 A.D. So I'm guessing that Howard's four Cormac Mac Art stories take place in-between 420 and 435 A.D. I think that if Wulfhere's homeland, Denmark, had been under Attila's control during the time of these stories, there would have been some mention of it, especially by Wulfhere.

There were so many barbarian migrations going on at this time that it's really hard to produce a "snapshot" of what Europe looked like at any one time. The Vandals, Goths, Burgundians and others were all on the move.

Note: although Howard had Gaelic settlements in Pictland (Caledonia, or the future Scotland) as early as "Kings Of The Night" (about 290 A.D.), the Gaelic migration there began in earnest about 350 A.D., but the Picts were not completely absorbed (or slaughtered) until the 900s. So it's safe to assume that in Cormac's time, the western one-third of Pictland was under Gaelic control. The eastern two-thirds, however, would have remained in Pictish hands.

There is a striking problem with chronology: that is the existence of Nordic raiders as early as "Kings Of The Night", as well as the whole Cormac/Wulfhere saga. The great Viking raids of history happened 800-1000 A.D. Jutes, Angles and Saxons had migrated, by sea, to England from the area now known as Denmark and northern Germany, but I doubt that the Jutes of that time, or any of the other races he mentions, were the Vikings that Howard made them out to be.

[The gracious Morgan Holmes has pointed out to me that, at the very least, there were Saxon and Jute pirates in the North Sea at this time. So I guess at least there were some sort of pre-Viking raiders.]

An odd thought occurred to me in regards to Howard as a historical writer. We all know that Howard was a history buff, right? Plus we know he did do research for his stories (well, for some of them anyway). And yet the Howard fan is bothered by the historical inaccuracies, and by what others, non-fans, say about his historical writing when we're trying to turn them on to the drama and excitement of REH's invigorating prose. Well, as I was quandaring over this point, an interesting idea occurred to me, and caused me to turn to Howard scholar Rusty Burke and his "Afterword" to The Ballad Of King Geraint. In that essay Rusty notes that the poem was influenced both by G.K. Chesterton's "The Ballad Of The White Horse" and by the attitude toward historical writing that Chesterton took in the writing of that poem: In short, if you telescope history, bring in elements from both before and after the events you are describing, you can make your yarn more exciting and give it a timeless mythic sort of quality. I maintain that not only did Howard do this with "The Ballad Of King Geraint", but that he applied that approach to the bulk of his historical writing (both historical fantasy and historical adventure) as a new way to interpret events. It's a shame this approach never caught on.

The unsatisfying alternative to this is to say that Howard's stories seem to happen in an alternate dimension where not only magic works, but that the Viking expansion began sooner.

In Richard L. Tierney's introduction to Tigers Of The Sea, he offers the fanciful proposition that we look at Howard's Gaelic heroes as previous incarnations of Robert E. Howard, and discusses them in the order of when they would have lived. That provides us with the following list (keeping in mind that the Gaels were descended from Howard's Cimmerians, and the Cimmerians from the Atlantians):

More importantly, Tierney discusses two chronological problems that exist in Howard's text.

  1. "Tigers Of The Sea" supposedly happens 80 years after the sack of Rome (490 A.D.). For "The Temple Of Abomination" the time span given is 50 years (460 A.D.) Now, if pushed to the wall, I could go with the date in "Temple". Even though Attila would have been in possession of Wulfhere's homeland for at least 10 years at that point, but I can't agree to the span of time given in "Tigers". Perhaps we had best treat that story as though Howard had said 15 or 20 years instead. It's also hard to accept that Cormac and Wulfhere Viking-ed around for 30 years with no significant change in their lives!!!

  2. In "Tigers Of The Sea" Uther Pendragon is the king of Southern Britain; in "The Temple Of Abomination" Arthur, a pretender to Uther's throne, is adventuring in the south. If we use the dates given above, these references are in the inverse order of when these mythic figures were to have lived. Another reason to wink at the data given in "Tigers".
Tierney also states that "The Temple Of Abomination" was written first. Unless there is concrete evidence to support that hypothesis, I would suggest that it was the last written tale, that Howard was trying to convert an adventure series into a fantasy series in order to make a sale with it.

There is an interesting observation in David A. Drake's introduction to Cormac Mac Art. He says that, besides Howard's bleak viewpoint, there is a kind of truth to Howard's work. That is true, and it comes from him putting himself so deeply into his work that reading a Robert E. Howard story becomes a very personal experience.

These stories take place when the Vikings were only raiders, and not the conquerors and colonizers of later times.

A word or two about Cormac's biography: there is enough evidence bandied about throughout this series to put together a picture of Cormac's life. At quite a young age Cormac put to sea. He spent time in the service of the king of Dalriadia, during which time he had occasion to battle the Picts. Shortly thereafter he lead a band of Gaelic sea-faring raiders, and harried Dalriadia, Briton, and many more exotic climes, perhaps adventuring quite extensively. A civil war in his homeland cost him his crew and outlawed him. It was some time after this, now a seasoned fighter, that he threw in with Wulfhere.

The Night Of The Wolf (423 A.D.)
This entire story takes place in the Shetland Islands (which are to the extreme northeast of modern day Scotland), specifically on the island known as Golara. The piece begins as the Pictish chieftain, Brulla (chief of all the Shetland Island Picts), orders some Norwegian Vikings to leave the island and return to their homeland. It seems these Vikings had come to the island pretending to be friends, and after their steading was built they showed themselves as being the utter rogues they actually were. They refuse the chief's command, of course, beat him up and throw him outside into the dust. Among them is Cormac Mac Art, pretending to be the Irish chieftain Partha Mac Othna (note that Bran Mak Morn used the same pseudonym). The Vikings recognize him and throw him in a jail-house. Brulla did not die of his beating and masses all the Picts of the Shetlands to wipe out the Vikings. This they do. Cormac escapes, rendezvous with Wulfhere, rescues a Danish king that the Norwegian Vikings had as a prisoner (though they didn't realize that he was a king, as he went by the name of Hrut). They steal a new ship (The Raven), as theirs was burnt by the Picts, and make good their escape, aiming to place this king back on the Danish throne which action would remove Wulfhere and his men from outlawry and open Danish ports to them.

Cormac Mac Art an Cliuin (the wolf) is described: He has dark, scarred, inscrutable features and narrow, cold, grey, icy eyes, and appears sinister. He is tall and powerfully made. He is black-haired and clean-shaven, and his mail is of the chain-mesh type forged by Irish armor-makers instead of the scale-mail of the Norse. His helmet is crested with flowing horse-hair. He had achieved fame as an Irish pirate (he was a chief of Irish raiders) before joining Wulfhere. He had also fought the Caledonian Picts.

The Gaelic pirate's faculties are as much keener than the average man's as a wolf's are keener than a hog's; his eyes are like a cat's in the dark. He has the wolfish instincts of the Gael, a wild beast vitality, and is inured to wounds, and gives them hardly a thought. He is an iron man in an iron age.

An interesting aspect to Cormac's personality is his morality, and the value he puts on human life. This aspect of his personality gets stronger in each story. In this tale there is a reference to "a corpse he had been loathe to make". And although the Norwegian Vikings are his enemies throughout the story, he admits to Hrut (now revealed as King Thorfinn) that he would go to the aid of these Vikings against the attacking Picts if there was a way to do it without getting killed in the process. This emphasis on the value of human life grows in later stories. (There may be an influence here from Talbot Mundy's Tros Of Samothrace, but I can't tell for sure.)

Wulfhere Hausakliufr, the Skull-splitter, leads "red bearded giants, whose chief [Wulfhere himself], look[s] like a very god of war." Wulfhere never talks in normal speech. Howard is always saying that he bellowed this or roared that, he even has a great laugh. He must have had a big booming voice! At the beginning of this story, Wulfhere and his crew are "outlawed even among [his] own people."

The Danes are the best bowmen among the Viking races.

The Pictish chief, Brulla, "did not look particularly impressive." He is a short, heavily muscled man, smooth-faced and very dark. His only garments or ornaments are rude sandals on his feet, a deerskin loincloth, and a broad leather girdle from which swings a short curiously-barbed sword (the Picts of Bran Mak Morn's time carried barbed swords too). He wears no armor and his square-cut black mane is confined only by a thin silver band about his temples. His cold black eyes glitter. He has a usually immobile face.

Of the Picts, it is said that they are as hard as cats to kill. A beating such as Brulla had received would have left the average man a crippled wreck, but the Pict would probably be fully recovered in a few hours, if no bones had been broken. These Picts move like ghosts, and are described as elves, and evil demons of the forest. These are the distorted folk that Bran ruled over, for they are short and mightily built, standing and walking in a half stoop. They have stocky figures, wear no mail, and are indifferently armed, but most carry the short barbed sword. As they go past Cormac's cell, they march one behind the other, and pass in almost utter silence. These stunted Picts are monstrous travesties of men. They are an uncommonly quiet folk: "The skulking figures passed as they had come, soundless, leaving no trace behind, like ghosts of the night." When they attack there is a hellish wolf-howling.

The descriptions of Cormac and Wulfhere are reinforced and expanded in latter stories.

Tigers Of The Sea (425 A.D.)
["Tigers Of The Sea" needs a bit of a history/geography lesson to fully appreciate. I don't mean that in any kind of deprecatory tone, as I'm sure most of you reading this know your history better than I do. Please refer back to the map as you read this paragraph. The Gaels inhabit Ireland and have began to settle in western Caledonia (the future Scotland). Howard draws a distinction between the Gaels living in Ireland and the Gaels living in Dalriadia. In fact, he says that the Irish had kicked the Scottish out of Ireland. I don't know it that's true, or if this distinction was so strongly made back then. The rest of Caledonia is inhabited by the Picts, destined to be annihilated or absorbed by the Scots and Danes (or, if you prefer, driven literally underground, as Howard says). The Picts also inhabit most of the islands north and northwest of Caledonia. Modern day Wales, plus Lands End, Devon and Cornwall, are inhabited by the Britons, which are a later Celtic migration than the Gaels. What we think of as modern day England (minus Lands End, Devon and Cornwall) is inhabited by the Angles, the Jutes, and the Saxons; who have migrated by sea from where modern day Denmark and northern Germany are.]

For the sake of this story Howard has Briton divided into three main kingdoms, there may be lesser kingdoms, but he doesn't mention these, though he does say that there are areas not under the control of these three kings. The wild King Garth rules in northern Briton, and the famous Uther Pendragon rules southern Briton. This story begins in Briton (Wales) and centers on King Gerinth, ruler of central Briton; Donal, the minstral; Princess Helen, the king's sister; and her fiancee, Marcus, a very Romanized Briton who has quite a bit of Roman blood in him. There has been constant westward pressure on the Britons from the expanding Saxons and Angles. In fact, the king believes Helen has been captured by the Angles, even though the Angles, Jutes and Saxons are warring among themselves.

However, it was the Picts who kidnapped Helen; and the still-living Gonar sends her to the Isle of Altars, in the Shetlands (islands to the extreme northeast of Caledonia), to be sacrificed to Golka of the Moon. "The Picts worship strange and abhorrent gods," says Cormac.

They find out that Helen has been kidnapped from the Picts by some Jutish Vikings, and taken to the Hebrides (islands northwest of Caledonia). While doing a bit of spying, again under the name of Partha Mac Othna, Cormac discovers that the princess is using the name "Atalanta" so that her captors don't realize who she is. This fragment ends with our heroes planning to rescue her.

Cormac and Wulfhere's ship is still The Raven, and Cormac again uses the pseudonym of Partha Mac Othna; and it is revealed that Cormac had fought on the side of the Dalriadians some 15 years previous, and that his wandering had been extensive enough for him to have seen cities of considerable size.

As if we didn't have all the proof from "The Temple of Abomination" that we needed to show that Cormac Mac Art was pagan, Howard has him swear "what in the name of the gods !"

The Danes proficiency with the bow is again stressed, as Howard states the Dalriadians (Scots) had no skill in archery.

In this story it is stated that Rome had fallen 80 years previous. Cormac describes politics in Briton by say, "...Rome has fallen and the lesser demons are battling among themselves for mastery!"

An important snippet about their adventurings is revealed by the phrase, "... the arms of many nations were part of The Raven's cargo."

We find out a bit more information about the Picts of Cormac's time: King Brogar rules all of Pictdom. Grothga is a place in Pictland, most likely a village. The existence of the Isle of the Altars is re-confirmed, as is the fact that one of the their gods is Golka of the moon. The setting on the Isle of Altars is described: "... a grim black altar, surrounded by columns of stone."

Descriptions of Cormac, Wulfhere and their band:

"Tigers of the sea! Men with the hearts of wolves and thews of fire and steel! Feeders of ravens whose only joy lies in slaying and dying! Giants to whom the death-song of the sword is sweeter than the love-song of a girl!"

"Wulfhere the Skull-splitter, the chieftain, is a red-bearded giant like all his race. He is crafty in his way, but leads his Vikings mainly because of his fury in battle. He handles his heavy, long-shafted axe as lightly as if it were a toy, and with it he shatters the swords, shields, helmets and skulls of all who oppose him. When Wulfhere crashes through the ranks, stained with blood, his crimson beard bristling and his terrible eyes blazing and his great axe clotted with blood and brains, few there are who dare face him.

"But it is on his righthand man that Wulfhere depends for advise and council. That one is crafty as a serpent and is known to us Britons of old for he is no Viking at all by birth, but a Gael of Erin, by name Cormac Mac Art, called an Cliuin, or the Wolf. Of old he led a band of Irish reivers and harried the coasts of the British Isles and Gaul and Spain aye, and he preyed also on the Vikings themselves. But civil war broke up his band and he joined the forces of Wulfhere they are Danes and dwell in a land south of the people who are called Norsemen.

"Cormac Mac Art has all the guile and reckless valor of his race. He is tall and rangy, a tiger where Wulfhere is a wild bull. His weapon is the sword, and his skill is incredible. The Vikings rely little on the art of fencing; their manner of fighting is to deliver mighty blows with the full sweep of their arms. Well, the Gael can deal a full arm blow with the best of them, but he favors the point. In a world where the old-time skill of the Roman swordsman is almost forgotten, Cormac Mac Art is well-nigh invincible. He is cool and deadly as the wolf for which he is named, yet at times, in the fury of battle, a madness comes upon him that transcends the frenzy of the Berserk. At such times he is more terrible than Wulfhere, and men who would face the Dane flee before the blood-lust of the Gael."

"Wulfhere is no sea-king; he has but one ship but so swiftly he moves and so fierce is his crew that the Angles, Jutes and Saxons fear him more than any of their other foes. He revels in battle. He will do as you wish him, if the reward is great enough."

"He [Wulfhere] was a giant; his breast muscles bulged like twin shields under his scale mail corselet. The horned helmit on his head added to his great height, and with his huge hand knotted about the long shaft of a great axe he made a picture of rampant barbarism not easily forgotten. But for all his evident savagery . . ."

This man [Cormac Mac Art] was tall and rangy. He was big and powerful, and though he lacked the massive bulk of the Dane, he more than made up for it by the tigerish lithness that was apparent in his every move. He was dark, with a smooth-shaven face and square-cut black hair. He wore none of the golden armlets or ornaments of which the Vikings were so fond. His mail was of chain mail and his helmet [...] was crested with flowing horse-hair.

[Cormac's] cold, narrow, grey eyes ...

... sinister, scarred features of the Gael.

These wild rovers of the sea acknowledged the rule of no king.

... possessing the true Gaelic antipathy for his Cymric kin ...

... all the isles of the western sea had been his stamping ground since the day he had been able to lift his first sword.

There are a couple of interesting statements in regards to the value that Cormac puts on human life (which is an interesting dichotomy for a pirate and raider to have):

... concerns every member of our crew. It is my duty to them to require every proof.

"Drive a brass nail into the main mast," snarled the Gael. "Gerenth owes us ten pounds already."

The bitterness of his eyes belied the harsh callousness of his words.

There is a Pict on-stage in this story, and his description coincides with what we already know about them:

... short and strongly made. He was dark ... a face as immobile as an idol's, two black eyes glittered reptile-like. His square cut black hair was caught back and confined by a narrow silver band about his temples, and he wore only a loin cloth and a broad leather girdle from which hung a short, barbed sword.

Continued